On the ‘Record’: Schapiro anticipates final semester

On Dec. 16, President Schapiro announced he would be leaving the College this summer to assume the presidency at Northwestern University. Yesterday morning, he sat down with editor-in-chief Amanda Korman to discuss his new position and plans for his last semester in Williamstown.

How did you make the decision to leave?

I had already said, you know, keep it sort of eight to 10. I would have preferred to do one more year but for family and other reasons this is a good time for me to leave. People who know me say, “I’m not surprised,” and the last two years I’ve been saying at faculty meetings and all alumni events, “Oh, I’m in year eight, now I’m in year nine,” especially all fall, even though I didn’t know I’d be leaving until two weeks before I accepted the job. Because I wasn’t a candidate for anything. They called me out to look at the place and I went out and liked it. Especially this year, I’ve been saying I wish it was the beginning of my term rather than the end. I did the 80s here I did the 90s at USC and this decade here. God willing, I’ll do the next decade in Evanston. Ten-year things are easy to remember.

How did you come to Northwestern? What happened?

Well, they called me up at the end of their search, and they said, “We heard really good things about you. Would you be willing to look at the place?” And at first I said “No, I’d rather stay another year and stuff but then I thought about it a little bit more. Talked to my wife and figured I should probably look at it. I know a few people there, and the current president is a wonderful guy. And I was going to leave probably next year anyway. I figured, “great opportunity, good timing for my family,” and that was it. So its one of these things that from the first time I ever thought I would be president of Northwestern until when I said yes was two weeks probably.

Did you have any hesitation about leaving amidst an uncertain financial climate and all the changes?

No. I think the financial climate’s going to be pretty challenging for the next couple of years. There’s no way in the world that I was ever going to last more than 10. This way, we will be focusing very heavily on the financial situation at Williams just as all the presidents are, and I’m sure I will at Northwestern on July 1 or whenever I have taken over the presidency, sometime probably in the summer.

I think Williams is in good financial shape. There are some challenging decisions to be focusing on, the board comes in this week, we’ll move forward on the financial plan. But, no, I didn’t think about that, I just thought when I said I’d do a decade, I’d basically do a decade.

Is there something specific that Williams could benefit from in someone new?

No. The only thing to think about is that you get to do one sort of strategic thing, and I did mine a long time ago in 2000-2001 as soon as I came in – A lot of the faculty has turned over since then and there’s time for a new strategic plan, because you can only do one. And then you do a campaign, which ended Dec. 31. So this is my experience: You get one play and one campaign and after that people don’t take you as seriously, to tell you the truth. Faculty, alumni starting to think, you know, “When are you going to leave?” And I mean, I’ve gotten a lot of questions in the early fall. I can’t give the alumni talk without someone asking, “When will you leave?” You hear it enough that sometimes you wonder, “Are they afraid I’m going to leave or afraid I’m not going to leave?” I can’t say that it planted the seed in my mind, but everywhere I go, people asked me.

I think Williams deserves a new leader to do different things. The number of things I’ve been hesitant about, not being a big fan of international campuses for example. I’ve never thought that distance learning is something that will fit very well for Williams.

Regarding these immediate, hot-button issues like Williams in New York or the neighborhood system, do you have any thoughts on how the school should move forward?

If there is any upside about financial upheavals, it is that you focus on the things that are most important. I think the Williams in New York program had some very good things about it, but from my own view, I just don’t think it was worth the money. I think you have to focus on your key things when you have a financial downturn. That was just one of them.

You mention the neighborhood system; it’s going to be evaluated next year. It’s achieved a lot of the things that we hoped for, but many of the things we had hoped have not been achieved. The neighborhood system still has a long, long way to go. I would have liked to be part of the evaluation – I have pretty strong feelings about it. I think Dean Merrill is going to oversee that permanently.

Do you think that the system has a chance of being successful?

I think we are going to take the better parts of it – there are certain things that work and a lot of things that don’t – and I think it will morph into something more successful than it has been. When we did the reaccredidation, one of the areas was student life and the person in charge of that was wonderful, and she said, “Don’t panic, you really need seven years.” I just don’t have that patience. I think that we can take what works and take it to the next level – whether it is going to be called neighborhoods, I have no idea. I think the idea of mixing the students more effectively and not having stratified housing is a good idea. It hasn’t worked as well as we hoped. I think there will be another version, and before long, we will have a more successful housing system.

In terms of the next semester, your last semester, what are you planning on focusing on?

I think the financial thing is what we have really been focusing on. There are a lot of important decisions that need to be made. We’re getting almost around to them. When I leave Williams we’ll be in good shape looking towards the future, but I’m not saying, “Hey, we’ll sacrifice the current students just to prepare for their grandchildren.” That would be a terrible thing to do. At the same time, we shouldn’t bankrupt the future. We’ve been around for over 215 years, we should make sure that we’ll continue to be here.

What are the things that get sacrificed? I know that doing budget cuts on departments are the immediate steps.

We have five dining halls. Amherst has one. That is a natural thing. I’ve heard from the Board my entire presidency, “Are you trying to maximize inefficiency?” And there’s a certain truth in that, but it’s kind of nice we don’t have an enormous institutionalized dining hall. People who eat at Driscoll really like it, people who eat at Dodd really like it. Mission is very nice, and Paresky is fantastic. I’ve never been a fan of Greylock personally, but it’s fine for people over there on the west side of campus.

There’s a whole bunch on the table. The question is, “What about athletics? Are there some cuts you can make there?” We certainly aren’t going to do away with what most schools do – that is, financial aid. In fact, we’re putting more money into financial aid, even for early admissions. We’re putting next year $600,000 into early admissions financial aid. Which is good because we have a higher percentage of kids who came early on financial aid. You know the whole story from Harvard and Princeton and others moving away from early admissions is that you only get rich kids because you’re buying a product before you know its price. Well, I say, that Williams’ package is so generous that you don’t have to worry, so I’m glad to see more first-generation kids, more lower-income kids coming in early.

And the need-blind for international students? Is that secure or on the table?

It really depends on how far down we go on our resources. I know it’s something I had pushed for. We’d gone from very few international kids, almost all of whom paid their own way, to more than double the international kids we used to have. We used to do about 20 a year, and this year or last year we did 46. So it’s more than doubled. I think it’s made a real change and a great positive impact on the campus. It’s extremely expensive. The decision to get away with all loans in financial aid packages was very expensive. Nearly cost us $2 million dollars.

Is it going to stay that way?

It really depends. If the endowment goes down by 30 percent, stays flat for five years, anything would be on the table. If I were still president, I would put it on the table. Not need-blind. That would be the last thing. There’s a reason why the vast majority of schools still package loans in financial aid packages. Except for the neediest students. It’s because it’s very expensive not to give a loan to a family that can earn $180,000. Why not give them a couple of thousand? It all adds up if you do that. So that’s a hard priority for me to keep. But if the economy doesn’t rebound, endowment doesn’t rebound, I’m sure my successor is going to think long and hard whether to continue need-blind for international students.

Do you see a next step for Williams?

If I were starting my term now there are certain things I would do. But I had my chance, I did my stuff. Tutorials are really expensive to do, because you have such a small class size. We have almost 70 now, we had 20 when I came in. Instead of having 180 students taking them, we have 650. That’s very expensive. Maybe the faculty and the new president will decide that that’s a luxury we can’t afford. I hope that doesn’t happen. I hope we continue to be focused on having really small class size. I hope we keep the Exeter program. I hope we keep the Center for Development Economics, which I think is a spectacular outreach to the world. I could give a whole list. I hope we keep very serious athletic programs with postseason play, NCAA and the like. I hope we keep our real strong strength in the arts: art history, the “art mafia,” I hope we continue to nurture that for the next generation. There’s a whole bunch of things I hope, but I’m not convinced that just because I’ve been here 20 years that my vision is the right vision for Williams going forward.

There’s a chance that those things are going to change?

Yes, Williams changes. If you look back to the ‘60s, some of the academic programs we had, some of the things we did … In the 1950s, one of the most quintessential things about a Williams life was fraternities. In the 1960s, one of the most quintessential things was that we didn’t have women here. Things come and go, they really do. People have this view that our kinds of institutions are stuck in time. They’re really not. I think that this is a fundamentally different school than it was certainly when it was when I first arrived here in 1980. I think it’s somewhat different than it was when I came back as president nine years ago.

Things change, but that’s why you need new leadership. I’m not saying I got everything right; I’m sure I haven’t. But there are certain things: I like the small classes, and the international students and tutorials and all that. But I also like the extracurricular stuff that we do. And I think athletics is a very important part of that. And I hope that we continue with NCAA competition, and continue to take our athletic endeavors very seriously.

I’m very happy with what we’ve done environmentally, so I hope that’s not on the table. I hope that we don’t retreat from the great steps we’ve taken for the environment. That’s something that’s very important to me, and I feel we’ve really taken some steps forward. There are so many things that I hope, but I really hope we keep Winter Study. But I’m sure my successor is going to correct some of my mistakes, and also have a bold new vision for how to improve Williams. I mean, maybe I’m just holding on to old things, but I love Winter Study. That’s one of the things I’m worried about, that I’ve protected.

Well I think I know 2000 students who agree with you.

Well, there were 2000 students who said they were in favor of free-agent housing, but I said they were wrong.

Do you think you’ll still be that community presence at Northwestern?

Oh yes. Two weeks ago, when I gave a series of talks at Northwestern, I ate in a dorm and it was really quite good. They have residential colleges, and I went into one. It was packed, a ton of people stuffed into a big common room. And that’s the kind of stuff I love to do. It was like snacks basically. I sat there for an hour and half leading a discussion, asking them why they came to Northwestern, what they don’t like about it, all the stuff I usually do if I’m lucky enough that you invite me to snacks. I have some Sundays where I just sit at home sad because no one invited me to snacks. They have something called “munchies” at Northwestern. Maybe I’ll get invited to that. That’s how I learn about Williams and that’s how I’ll learn about Northwestern. I’ll ask about what I can do as president of Northwestern to make their lives better.

Will you be teaching at Northwestern?

Oh absolutely. I’m actually hoping to teach three classes a year. They have trimesters there, and I actually have tenure in three different departments. I’m going to be teaching an upper level economics version of my tutorial on the economics of higher education, a class on applied econometrics. I also have tenure at Kellogg, the business school. I look forward to doing some version of an MBA class. And then I also have tenure in the school of education and social policy, which is really quite good. They have a group of economists doing the economics of higher education, which I do. I’m going to be teaching my class with Will Dudley again this semester. Maybe I can find a philosopher at Northwestern to teach a similar class with, because I’m really interested in economics and philosophy, and the overlap there.

But it’s going to be hard to extricate myself from here. I love these students.

How are you going to stay connected?

I have tons of friends, so many great friends on the faculty. I’ll always be part of Williams. I mean, 20 years, two thirds of my professional life have been here. Two of my kids were born here; all three of my kids were raised here. It’s going to be very hard for me to leave. I love this place, I love these students.

Are you going to go back to Northwestern this semester?

No, I have a full time job. I’m going to focus on teaching my class with Will, on figuring out the budget, countless alumni events all around the country. I’ve got a full time job, I don’t have time to think that much about Northwestern. Until the end of June, I’m still the president of Williams.